From Fear to Confidence (for your dog)

A local dog training non-profit organization, Your Dog’s Friend, hosted a lecture called, “From Fear to Confidence”, a few weeks ago. It was given by Tonya Wilhem of Raising Your Pets Natural, a behavior professional from Toledo, Ohio. It was a very interesting talk with lots of food for thought, so I thought I’d share my notes!

    1. Bringing a young dog into your home is an opportunity to prevent fearful and anxious behaviors through positive reinforcement of which you should take advantage! Tonya gave the example of lavishly rewarding her puppy for calm behavior during thunderstorms (for years!), before he started developing storm anxiety. I’d note that it’s probably never too late to use positive reinforcement to prevent undesirable behaviors – so give your dog a treat for being good pupper whenever!!
    2. It is an owner’s responsibility to prevent (and if necessary, manage) situations that will put their dog over threshold. “Threshold” is a term meaning the point at which a stimulus will provoke a reaction. So my Luna can see a squirrel down the street and not react, but if a squirrel pops out of a few feet from us, you better believe she’s going after said squirrel. Thus, Luna’s squirrel threshold is somewhere between “down the street” and “a few feet from us”. For a dog that is suffering from anxiety, it is vitally important to keep the dog under threshold and that may mean the owner has to determine some areas and activities are off-limits. A dog-reactive dog just should not be walked in an area frequented by other dogs, and a stranger-reactive dog should likewise not be walked where loads of people will be.

      It’s worth noting that “reactive” and “anxious/fearful” can be synonymous for some dogs. A dog may be reactive (i.e. barking, lunging, and generally carrying on) for many reasons: frustration, fear, excitement, etc. You have to know your dog and your dog’s body language to tell the difference!

    3. Know your dog’s body language. How do you identify your dog’s threshold, prior to doggo becoming a lunging, barking mess? The dog’s body language! It is unfortunately true that some proportion of dog owners misinterpret canine body language so it’s a good idea for any owner to brush up on their canine body language in general and to carefully study their dog’s body language in a variety of situations. This piece on dog body language from the ASPCA is a good place to start but remember that every dog may be a little different.
    4. Use counterconditioning to change your dog’s emotional response to fear-inducing stimuli while your dog is under threshold. Counterconditioning is the process of pairing a stimuli that elicits an undesirable response with something positive with the goal of changing the dog’s immediate response to that stimuli. The key here is to use counterconditioning when the dog is well under her threshold! So I’ve used counterconditioning extensively with Luna – one example is with the neighbor whose yard abuts ours. For whatever reason (I’ll withhold my non-charitable thoughts about how this guy has never even said, “Hi!”, to me despite my perfectly friendly overtures), Luna has decided that she does not like him and will be barking at him at any given opportunity, thank you very much. To counter-condition Luna’s reaction to him, I kept her on leash (to keep her below threshold) and as we walked around our backyard at some distance from the neighbor, she would get treats for looking at him and not barking. Over many weeks, we slowly closed the distance between the fence and Luna, and now she (mostly) does not bark at him. Counterconditioning win!
    5. Appropriate tools and products are helpful, but they will only get you and your dog so far. Some pet products on the market will definitely make life harder for you and your anxious dog, because anything aversive -or force-based, like shock and prong collars, loud noise canisters, etc., will likely induce further fear and anxiety and undesirable behaviors. Great tools that will help you manage an anxious dog safely are widely available, such as front and back-clip and front-clip harnesses (Freedom Harness, Easy Walk, etc.) and head halters (Halti, Gentle Leader, etc.). In the way of counterconditioning, there are also products designed to help you deliver that special positive counterconditioning treat on the go, like treat pouches, LeanLix, Treat Toobs (fill with yogurt/pureed pumpkin/peanut butter/etc.), a really special toy, etc. And that’s just to name a few, and not including appropriate veterinary care, supplements, food, psychopharmaceuticals, and other products that may be helpful to an anxious dog.

      The bottom line is that a holistic approach to a dog’s anxiety is the only way to move your dog from fear to confidence!

If you enjoyed this entry, please give it a, “Like” and leave a comment below! I’d love to hear about your experience with an anxious or reactive dog.

If you’re in the DMV (that’d be DC-Maryland-Virginia area for you non-locals!), check out Your Dog’s Friend for other FREE dog behavior seminars like the one describe here (and great opportunities for fee-based classes too!)

Dog pheromones: do they work?


Photo credit: Gatorgoon via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

To follow up from my post about the efficacy of cat pheromones, I wanted to delve into the scientific literature looking into the effects of pheromonotherapy (the therapeutic application of pheromones to treat behavior problems) on dogs.

What is pheromonotherapy?

Scientists have demonstrated that many animals utilize pheromones (chemical communication signals emitted by animals) for a purposes as varied as sexual receptivity to spatial orientation to appeasement of infant animals. The idea behind pheromonotherapy is pretty simple: use synthetic pheromones to communicate a useful message to a pet displaying a behavior problem. While no side effects or toxicity to synthetic pheromones are known, the application of pheromonotherapy is complicated by the fact that animals do not passively intake pheromones (as far as scientists and veterinarians understand) – rather, animals must actively suck in pheromones through a specialized organ in the nasal cavity called the vomeronasal organ (VNO). Unfortunately, there are typically environmental or behavior signals that induce an animal to engage the VNO and these signals may or may not be present when synthetic pheromones are applied. Synthetic pheromones are available from many pet retailers in the form of plug in diffusers, impregnated collars, sprays, and wipes.

What can pheromones do for dogs?

The only dog pheromone that I have found on the market is Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), which is supposed to be a synthetic copycat of the pheromone mother dogs produce to enhance attachment and promote emotional stabilization in her puppies. The common application for this pheromone is, unsurprisingly, to mitigate a undesirable dog behavior resulting from stressors  such as loud noises, being left alone, meeting/living with another animal, going to a veterinary office, etc.

So…do pheromones work for dogs?

I separated studies that I found in my literature review of pheromonotherapy efficacy in dogs into two broad categories: those considering dogs in “social” situations (i.e. where many other animals are present: shelters, veterinary clinics, or training classes) and those looking at dogs in a more private home setting. My motivation for this division is the probable increase in the engagement of the VNO in social situations vs. when dogs are just sitting in their familiar environment.

Interestingly, the general consensus is: YES, pheromones are very effective in reducing anxiety and displacement behaviors (barking, panting, avoidance behaviors, destruction, excessive licking, etc.) while promoting relaxed and social behaviors (social greetings of strangers, laying down, normal appetite, etc.) in dogs. In social settings, results have been reported in as little as 4-7 days, while the treatment period for dogs in home settings is typically longer (4+ weeks). One study even found that DAP application had comparable results to an antidepressant medication, clomipramine, on reducing anxious behaviors.  That’s pretty impressive, considering that DAP has no side effects while clomipramine can have serious side effects including GI upset, elevation of liver enzymes, convulsions, and confusion.

Nearly every study that I read included the stern limitation that more research is needed to confirm these positive results. Furthermore, serious canine behavior problems are unlikely to be fully ameliorated by pheromonotherapy alone: behavior modification programs and psychopharmaceutical drugs should be applied as determined by a veterinarian and/or behaviorist.


Photo credit: Bekathwia via Remodel Blog / CC BY-SA

What does the manufacturer have to say about pheromone efficacy in dogs?

I contacted Ceva Animal Health, the company that produces a popular dog pheromone, Adaptil because their products/website purport to have data on file about the effectiveness of Adaptil. A veterinary technician in their customer service section got back to me with three pieces of literature: one was an actual study of pheromonotherapy and socialization in puppies [1], one was a well-referenced summary of pheromonotherapy studies [2], and the final piece was (probably?) a selection from a book that had no references and a single author [3]. Since I expected some data generated internally from Ceva or at least a Ceva-funded study, I was pretty disappointed in this response – all of this information is available publicly, so what’s with the “data on file” statement? I suspect that Ceva (and other animal product manufacturers) are not all that interested in selling an effective product – they just want to sell any product.

TL;DR

Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is pretty well established as an effective treatment for stress-induced behavior problems in dogs. Pheromonotherapy has been demonstrated to reduce anxious behaviors and increase relaxed behaviors in dogs in especially short timeframes (4-7 days) in situations where other animals are present, which appears to hold up in more private home settings over longer periods (4+ weeks). Dogs with serious behavior problems should be evaluated by a veterinarian and/or dog behaviorist because pheromonotherapy is likely only one piece of the behavior modification and treatment program that the dog will need.

References

  1. Denenberg, Sagi, and Gary M. Landsberg. “Effects of dog-appeasing pheromones on anxiety and fear in puppies during training and on long-term socialization.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 233.12 (2008): 1874-1882.
  2. Landsberg, Gary. “Why Practitioners Should Feel Comfortable with Pheromones – The Evidence to Support Pheromone Use.” Presented at The North American Veterinary Conference. (2006)
  3. Mills, Daniel S. “Pheromones and Pheromonatherapy.” The Henston Small Animal Veterinary Vade Mecum. Part IV: 316-323
  4. Frank, Diane, Guy Beauchamp, and Clara Palestrini. “Systematic review of the use of pheromones for treatment of undesirable behavior in cats and dogs.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 236.12 (2010): 1308-1316.
  5. Tod, Elaine, Donna Brander, and Natalie Waran. “Efficacy of dog appeasing pheromone in reducing stress and fear related behaviour in shelter dogs.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 93.3 (2005): 295-308.
  6. Kim, Young-Mee, et al. “Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) for ameliorating separation-related behavioral signs in hospitalized dogs.” Canadian Veterinary Journal 51.4 (2010): 380.
  7. Gaultier, E., et al. “Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs.” Veterinary Record-English Edition 156.17 (2005): 533-537.
  8. Mills, Daniel Simon, et al. “A triple blind placebo-controlled investigation into the assessment of the effect of Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) on anxiety related behaviour of problem dogs in the veterinary clinic.” Applied animal behaviour science 98.1 (2006): 114-126.
  9. Sheppard, G., and D. S. Mills. “Evaluation of dog-appeasing pheromone as a potential treatment for dogs fearful of fireworks.” Veterinary Record: Journal of the British Veterinary Association 152.14 (2003).

In the Pet News Lately, Vol. 1


Photo credit: marco monetti via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Bioethicist Jessica Pierce releases a new book on the ethics of keeping pets, Run, Spot, Run: the Ethics of Keeping Pets. Pierce takes a critical look at the oft-repeated “pets are family” mantra, according to this book review on National Public Radio (NPR). Examining everything from the pet industry’s push to make pet ownership seem fun and easy to the welfare of indoor cats to the “manufacturing” of amphibians and reptiles to be sold at pet stores – I can’t wait to get my hands on this book!

Public Radio International does story on paw-ternity leave (paid time off to care for a furry family member) offered by some companies in the U.K.  On the topic of pets as family members, PRI did a story recently about the trend in some small U.K. businesses to offer its employees paid time off to take care of a new or ill pet. Full disclosure: I have actually taken time off work several times to care for a pet undergoing surgery or seriously ill (think projectile vomiting). Have ever taken time off work to due to your pet’s needs?

Renowned ethologist Frans de Waal releases a new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, about the evolution of animal cognition science. I was first introduced to de Waal from his TED talk, Do Animals Have Morals?, a fascinating look at apparently moralistic behavior in (mostly) primates. I am about 1/3 of the way through this new publication about how animal cognition has been viewed historically, ranging from the idea that animals are unfeeling automatons to our much more complex understanding of how animal brains work today. I am so excited to finish this book – look for a review soon!

Inaugural publication of a new journal on animal sentience and cognition, Animal Sentience. Speak of animal cognition…Cognitive scientist Stevan Harnad has launched this new journal on animal sentience as a venue for the emerging research on “what, why, and how organisms feel.” The first issue is focused on the question of if fish feel pain. I am looking forward to perusing this and future issues!

Companion Animal Psychology blog posts about the importance of science to pet welfare and owner happiness.  Psychologist Zazie Todd muses, “[w]e wouldn’t let someone become a school teacher just because they grew up with other kids…”, in this post exploring the importance of understanding our pets’ needs and abilities through scientific exploration. A superb and succinct article that encompasses my entire motivation for this blog!

 

 

Cat pheromones: do they work?

I can’t speak for all pet owners but pet pheromone products have been pushed at me from all quarters – pet shop associates, veterinarians, trainers, and even other pet owners! I was initially recommended pheromone products due to car- and moving-induced stress in my pets but if you pick up any brand pheromone dispenser and you will discover a  multitude of potential applications. (Urine marking, inappropriate scratching, multicat tension, excessive barking, hiding, etc.) These products cost a pretty penny too – around $30 for a diffuser or spray, $15 for a pheromone-infused collar. So it begs the question: do pheromone products work?

Photo credit: Trish Hamme via Foter.com / CC B

What are pheromones anyway?

Pheromones are a means of chemical communication. Although not completely understood, it is thought that animals perceive pheromones through a specialized receptor in roof animal’s snouts called the vomeronasal organ (VNO). The VNO does not always pick up pheromones, however – it has to be activated by the animal. Have you ever seen a cat, intrigued by a new smell or etc., open her mouth and “pant” with her tongue out? That behavior is called “flehmen” and it’s function is to suck pheromones into the VNO.

Animals use pheromones to communicate a wide array of messages: territorial marking, sexual receptivity, spatial orientation and emotional stabilization, assertion of social status, alarm marking during fear reactions, appeasement of infant animals – and those are just the pheromones that scientists understand (and there are loads whose functions are unknown).

Scientists and pet product companies have developed synthetic pheromones that can be purchased at many pet stores and veterinary offices. Several types of pheromone dispensation products are available: passive diffusers that are plugged into a wall outlet, pheromone-infused collars, pheromone-infused wipes, and pheromone sprays.

What could pheromones do for cats?


Photo credit: Sander van der Wel via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Considering that our pets live in a world full of smells, veterinarians and behaviorists have  been exploring the application of pheromones to treat animal behavior problems because, when used correctly, they are completely non-toxic, have no side effects, and involve little effort on the part of owner or pet. The therapeutic use of pheromones to treat behavior problems in pets is called pheromonotherapy.

The principle of pheromonotherapy is pretty simple: use synthetic pheromones to communicate a useful message to a pet displaying a behavior problem. Many behavior problems are the result of fear and anxiety in pets, so using a pheromone with an emotional stabilization function – like the pheromone cats release when they rub their chin on something to distinguish it as “known”. Reduction of feline spraying has been a target of numerous pheromonotheray studies – no doubt because this is a common and extremely aggravating behavior problem for cat owners. Scientists have also evaluated cat pheromones in calming cats during transport, prior to intravenous catheterization, in preventing stress-induced anorexia, and facilitating the peaceful introduction of unsocialized cats.

So…do pheromones work?

There are real barriers to the success of pheromonotherapy. First, animals generally do not communicate by pheromones alone. Usually there would be a multitude of body signals or vocalizations that would accompany (and emphasize) the pheromone message and open up the VNO so that the animal perceives the message.  Secondly, pheromones may “prime” an animal’s emotional state to be receptive to a behavior modification program but it is unlikely that pheromones alone will completely address behavior problems.

Thus the importance of the scientific evaluation of pheromonotherapy! All of the studies that I read about the use of pheromones for emotional stabilization, i.e. for behavior problems like urine marking, inter-act aggression, transport-induced stress, stress-induced anorexia (see Sources below), were all suggestive of a positive effect. The general consensus is that the longer pheromones were used (4+ weeks), the better the effect. Additionally, many cats maintained improved behavior after pheromones were removed.

I did find a very critical meta-analysis, which is a study of studies. This meta-analysis looked at all available pheromone studies and found that most studies had significant problems with design and/or analysis, such as small sample size, the absence of blinding or randomization, and the lack of a control sample. These problems prevented the authors from agreeing with the positive findings of the individual studies. However…I had problems with the meta-analysis’s problems! The principles of “robust” clinical research aren’t always ethical – especially in a situation where, say, you’ve got an owner whose cat is spraying all over the house and euthanasia is seriously on the table. Furthermore, the funding opportunities for these studies don’t seem to be abundant so gathering huge sample sizes may not be possible. I did not find any study over stating its findings and hopefully the examination of pheromonotherapy will continue to provide additional information.


Photo credit: jenny downing via Foter.com / CC BY

TL;DR

We have reasonable evidence to suggest human-applied pheromones (or pheromonotherapy) can be helpful as part of a behavior modification program for a cat displaying certain behavior problems, especially urine marking and inter-cat aggression. Best results have been seen in prolonged use (4+ weeks) of pheromonotherapy.

 

 

Sources

  1. Frank, Diane, Guy Beauchamp, and Clara Palestrini. “Systematic review of the use of pheromones for treatment of undesirable behavior in cats and dogs.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 236.12 (2010): 1308-1316.
  2. Mills, Daniel S., Sarah E. Redgate, and Gary M. Landsberg. “A meta-analysis of studies of treatments for feline urine spraying.” PloS one 6.4 (2011): e18448.
  3. Griffith, Cerissa A., Elizabeth S. Steigerwald, and CA Tony Buffington. “Effects of a synthetic facial pheromone on behavior of cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217.8 (2000): 1154-1156.
  4. Mills, D. S., and C. B. Mills. “Evaluation of a novel method for delivering a synthetic analogue of feline facial pheromone to control urine spraying by cats.” RIVISTA DI ZOOTECNIA E VETERINARIA 30.1 (2002): 50-51.
  5. Kronen, Peter W., et al. “A synthetic fraction of feline facial pheromones calms but does not reduce struggling in cats before venous catheterization1.”Veterinary anaesthesia and analgesia 33.4 (2006): 258-265.
  6. Gunn-Moore, D. A., and M. E. Cameron. “A pilot study using synthetic feline facial pheromone for the management of feline idiopathic cystitis.” Journal of feline medicine and surgery 6.3 (2004): 133-138.
  7. Frank, D. F., H. N. Erb, and K. A. Houpt. “Urine spraying in cats: presence of concurrent disease and effects of a pheromone treatment.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 61.3 (1999): 263-272.
  8. Pageat, Patrick, and Emmanuel Gaultier. “Current research in canine and feline pheromones.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 33.2 (2003): 187-211.

Journal Article: How Did Dogs Get to Understanding Humans?

Title: The Domestication of Social Cognition in Dogs

Authors: Brian Hare, Michelle Brown, Christina Williamson, Michael Tomasello

Published: November 2002 in Science

General overview:
These authors conducted four experiments to explore three hypotheses about how domestic dogs may have acquired their adept skill at using human social cues: 1) canids (wolves, foxes, coyotes, dogs and etc.) are adept at exploiting the behavior of both conspecifics (members of the same species) and other species due to hunting requirements of their diet. This hypothesis predicts that many canids would perform as well as dogs on tasks involving social cues from humans. 2) Domestic dogs have much more experience with humans and their social cues due to dogs/humans’ relative closeness from a very young age. This hypothesis would indicate that dog puppies of advancing age would performing increasingly well at tasks involving human social cues due to their cumulative knowledge of living with humans longer. 3) Dogs have undergone a selection pressure during domestication for specific skills involved with using human social cues. This hypothesis predicts that dogs and puppies (over a certain age) would perform equally well on tasks requiring human social cues and would outperform their nearest relative, wolves.

The authors conducted four experiments to explore canid skills in exploiting human social cues for food rewards (with control experiments to address olfactory food detection). In the first experiment, the researchers tested 11 dogs and 11 apes on the ability to correctly choose a container that was gazed at, pointed at and had a small marker placed atop. Dogs were significantly more skilled at this task, demonstrating that dogs are better at exploiting human social cues than humans’ nearest relative.

In the second experiment, 7 dogs and 7 human-reared wolves were tested on the ability to correctly choose a container with a single or combination of the following human social cues: gaze, point and/or tap. Dogs generally outperformed wolves, although the wolves did appear to understand a combination of the cues.

In the third experiment, 5 dogs and 5 human-reared wolves were individually shown food being hidden in a container and then later had to pick the container from memory. Dogs and wolves performed equally well in this experiment.

In the fourth and final experiment, the authors tested 32 dog puppies between the ages of 9 and 26 weeks. The puppies were tested on their ability to pick out a container based on a gaze and point or just a gaze by a human. Some puppies had been reared from a young age by humans while others had been raised in a kennel situation with limited human exposure. There was no difference between age or rearing type on either cue.

From the last three experiments, the authors conclude that their results suggest that dogs’ ability to exploit human social cues was due to selective pressure during the domestication process (hypothesis 3). Because puppies of all ages and human exposure type performed well on tasks using human social cues and while dogs and wolves performed well in the memory task (experiment 3), dogs outperformed wolves at social tasks, the authors found a significant social-cognitive difference between wolves and dogs that suggests an evolutionary explanation rather than the general social skill of canids (hypothesis 1) or a human exposure source (hypothesis 2).

My comments:

As you may have been able to tell, this article was chock full of interesting experiments and results. Science is a very prestigious journal with one of the highest impact factors of all academic journals. In other words, you don’t get published in Science unless you’ve done some pretty fascinating work!

Although their sample sizes are small (10 to 32 test subjects), these authors make a compelling argument to support the domestication theory of dogs’ ability to read human social skills. Of course, in order for this theory to be fully accepted, these experiments will need to be reproduced (and likely already have, since this research is 12 years old). Unfortunately, given the number of experiments these authors were explaining and the limited word count of Science, not a lot of space was given to elucidating the experimental conditions or even the subjects (except for the puppy experiment where ages were given, the only thing I know about the animals tested was their species). Of course, future researchers can always contact the corresponding author for this information if they’d like to replicate the science.

In my view, this research has very interesting implications for canine welfare. In many areas of the U.S., dogs are legally protected as property, with the exception that owners must provide adequate shelter, food, water and veterinary care. Basically, in our legal system, a dog is a box*.

However, if dogs are cognizant of human social skills, is it humane to treat a dog as a box*? After all, if you scream at a box, no harm is done. If you scream at a box*(i.e. a dog), and the dog feels stress from that social cue, has harm been done? Where and how does a creature’s cognitive abilities play into its welfare requirements?

(*that you can’t outright neglect or abuse)

These findings are super applicable for training purposes. Many common dog training methods involve pairing a human-given hand or verbal cue with a behavior (i.e. a sit) from the dog. This research suggests that this type of training is only possible through the selective pressure that gave dogs skilled at exploiting human social cues an evolutionary edge. Consider that in contrast to training a cat: the same hand/verbal cues may not be as meaningful to felines (who by all accounts never underwent the same domestication process as dogs) than our canines!

Journal Article: How to Train vs. How to Teach

Title: Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare

Authors: EF Hiby, NJ Rooney and JWS Bradshaw

Published: 2004 in Animal Welfare

General overview:

These authors distributed 600 surveys total in two counties in the UK in rural and urban dog-walking areas and veterinary facilities, and 326 were returned completed correctly and used for analysis. The surveys asked questions relating to information about the owner and the dog in addition to dog performance on seven basic obedience tasks, training methods used and undesirable behaviors. The use of punishment was associated with problematic behaviors like over-excitement and separation-related problems while the use of positive reinforcement only was associated with higher reported obedience. The authors note that while the relationship between problematic behaviors and the use on punishment is not precisely known, this work demonstrates that the use of punishment does not result in an obedient dog.

My comments:

This paper is, by far, one of the best written that I’ve come across so far. They authors did an excellent job describing their survey aims, how the analyses were performed and their results (both the basic demographic representations in their data and the interactions between training methods/obedience/problematic behaviors). In my opinion, the best part of this research was the limited scope of the question that the authors asked (and how they stated it explicitly in the article): “The aim of the current study is to document the use of training methods by the pet-owning community and investigate how these methods interact with both obedience and problematic behaviours.”

For me, some of the most interesting findings in this study were the types of behaviors that more owners reported using punishment or rewards only to tackle. For instance, owners 79% of owners reported using punishment when a dog chewed a household item while 79% of owners used positive reinforcement to train “come when called”. Few (12%) of owners used punishment during toilet training with their dog but “heel” training was more split (26% used punishment and 45% used rewards). I wonder if these proportions suggest that there are trends in how owners think to train certain behaviors. This is interesting because it may suggest that owners could benefit from a paradigm shift of “how to train sit/come when called/heel” to “how dogs learn”. (With the idea that learning how dogs learn would result in greater use of positive-reinforcement based training because it is the most effective way to teach dogs, per the current literature.)

The other significant finding that these authors presented was that owners who reported using punishment of any kind resulted in more separation-related problematic behaviors. It should be noted that the authors’ included any destruction/noise/elimination behaviors when left alone as “separation-related behaviors” because these behaviors are not necessarily separation anxiety. Problem behaviors that occur when owners are away can be attributed to many potential causes. The authors hypothesize the association between punishment and separation-related behaviors may result from that the fact that most owners aren’t animal behavior experts: incorrectly applied punishment could create an environment of uncertainty and confusion for a dog, exacerbating anxiety and conflict that are known causes for separation anxiety.

 

Journal Article: Can you measure stress in dogs?

Title: Manifestations of chronic and acute stress in dogs

Authors: Bonne Beerda, Matthijs B.H. Schilder, Jan. A.R.A.M. van Hooff, Hans W. de Vries

Published: 1997 in Applied Animal Behaviour Science

General overview:

The researchers sought to review the behavioral, physiological and immunological stress reactions that had been previously published and add to that knowledge base with their own researcher. The authors applied auditory stimuli to 6 beagle dogs (3 “test” dogs and 3 “control” dogs) in a variety of intensities and length. Additionally, the authors used 10 beagle dogs to test for stress reactions during 50 minutes of transport and in an unfamiliar environment. The dogs had behavioral and physiological measurements taken throughout travel to the testing facility or during the auditory stress or control situations. The authors found a wide range of physiological responses to supposed stressful events. The researchers suggested that more research into stress parameters for various behavioral, physiological and immunological reactions is needed. Furthermore, the authors recommend recording a variety of stress reactions in order to reduce differences between individuals, breeds, age, gender or previous life experiences when attempting to quantify the welfare of animals exposed to stress.

My comments:

Because this paper was about 50% literature review and 50% novel data, and because it was relatively old (17 years), I found this to be a highly, erm, fascinating read. Behavior researchers used to do some pretty sadistic things to dogs (i.e. shocking a dog with such a high voltage that the dog would, “urinate, defecate, scramble rapidly and vigorously around the compartment, emit high-pitched screeches, salivate profusely and roll their eyes rapidly with dilated pupils…”)! However flawed our currently animal research welfare laws are, they really are an improvement over…you know, no animal research welfare laws.

The literature review of this piece explained the historical efforts of animal behavior researchers to define which behaviors, physiological and immunological reactions in dogs were associated with stress. This research was probably fueled by the desire to define “stress” in dogs without any anthropomorphic influences. I thought it really highlighted the importance of “baby steps” in research: if you want to study stress in dogs, you must first define stress, determine how stress in manifested in the general population of dogs, and define measurable parameters of stress. Furthermore, if you want to say that stress is bad for dogs, you must first determine whether or not stress decreases the welfare of a dog! While these components might seem maddeningly insignificant, they are a requirement of understandable, reproducible, rigorous science.

The actual findings of novel research from this paper were not altogether interesting – which isn’t entirely surprising on account of the incredibly small sample sizes (6 and 10 dogs, respectively). The authors found a great variety in potential stress behaviors in these dogs, so they’re able to determine ranges for stress responses in any of the behaviors or physiological samples they measured. The authors also did not provide information about the dogs in regards to age, gender, neuter status, previous life experiences, etc., which could have offered some potential explanations for the variable stress reactions. It does highlight the need for more research into how individual differences between dogs could impact stress reactions and its welfare implications, I suppose.

Stress is an unavoidable part of canine life. If we can reduce stress on dogs, does this make their lives and thus welfare better off? This paper focused on the importance of linking stress to welfare implications. I am interested to read more about measurable stress reactions in companion animals!